How Trending Flavors and Ingredients Could Shake Up the Dairy Aisle in 2021

Pandemic-driven shelter-in-place directives and restaurant dine-in service closures throughout 2020 kicked at-home meal preparation—and grocery sales—into high gear nationwide. To wit: Year-over-year grocery-related spending increased by as much as 50% from early to mid-March 2020 before tapering off and remaining above pre-pandemic levels for most of the rest of the year.

However, as vaccine distribution continues to roll out nationwide, easing social distancing restrictions in some areas, CPG manufacturers may need to refocus on product innovation to offset increased competition from recently reopened restaurants. Offering food and beverage products that align with some of today’s top consumer flavor and ingredient trends—such as the ones outlined here—may help manufacturers and retailers keep sales on an upward trajectory.

Elevated Comfort Food

Consumers’ appetite for rich, decadent dishes doesn’t seem to have fully subsided since the start of the pandemic. In fact, roughly a third reported in December that they were eating more indulgent foods than they had pre-pandemic.

According to Beau Collins, senior marketing and consumer insights specialist for flavor provider Symrise, global flavors and unique ingredients, such as botanicals, have been popping up in upgraded versions of traditional comfort foods. In addition to seeing ice cream infused with lavender or rose, Collins says star anise—a spice culled from an evergreen shrub native to southwest China—is making its way into a variety of drinks and desserts, including lattes and retail cake mixes. 

Meanwhile, Sofia Saravia, senior consumer and shopper insights manager for Saputo Dairy USA, expects to see up-and-coming and emerging flavors like horchata, smoke and cardamom in coffee creamers, ice cream and other dairy items in the year ahead.

CPG manufacturers also have been incorporating rich, dessert-inspired flavorings that emulate cookies and candy, birthday cake, funfetti, ruby chocolate and more into dairy items, confirms Alyssa Hangartner, a consumer insights analyst for flavor and ingredient trends at Mintel. “As consumers come off a year of altered routines and elevated levels of stress, the dairy category is well-positioned for products that provide a sense of comfort and indulgence,” she explains. “Brands have been introducing new products channeling traditional decadence through chocolate, caramel, coffee and dulce de leche and have also been tapping into playful, nostalgic flavors.”

Some childhood memory-evoking items, like the cereal milk-flavored ice cream Post Consumer Brands announced in January to celebrate Fruity and Cocoa PEBBLES’ 50th anniversary, also play into consumers’ desire for highly visualized treats. The Fruity variety is particularly appealing, Collins says, because of its rainbow colors and visual vibrancy. “The pictorial experience [is] really big—it’s always about the Instagramification of food,” he says.

Creamy Caffeine Boosts: Flavor and Function

While whipped toppings—ranging from traditional whipped cream to foam made from cream cheese—have been used to add texture to beverages and sweets in foodservice, canned cold brew coffees have been appearing more frequently on store shelves.

Following the introduction of BAILEY’S nonalcoholic cold brew coffees in fall 2019 and Kahlúa’s ready-to-drink Nitro Cold Brew coffee-and-liquor blend in summer 2020, Greek yogurt manufacturer Chobani followed suit in early 2021 with the launch of a ready-to-drink cold brew coffee line made with oat and farm-fresh milk.

Newer coffee creamer flavors reflect recent taste trends as well. BAILEY’S, for example, introduced three nonalcoholic, indulgent coffee creamer varieties in 2019, including Irish cream—a flavor that’s been one of the fastest growing in the beverage category for the past three years, according to food and beverage solutions developer Kerry.

The coffee creamer category also may get a health-boosting lift from the functional coffee market, which Mordor Intelligence projects will enjoy a compound annual growth rate of 5.77% through 2025. The Mushroom Coffee from FreshCap Mushrooms, for example, blends organic coffee with adaptogenic mushrooms and purports to deliver energy, cognition, and immune support.

Functionality within the coffee creamer category is “well-positioned for growth” as well, partially because creamers tend to be more affordable than functional coffee, Hangartner says.  “Functional benefits generating significant consumer interest” include added protein, prebiotics and formulations that align with keto, vegetarian and other specialty diets—all of which could be well-suited for inclusion in creamer products, she adds.

Immunity Boosts (No Shots Required)

The onset of COVID-19 prompted some people to place a renewed emphasis on health, particularly in regard to immunity. In fact, 40% of consumers who seek out certain foods for their health benefits told the International Food Information Council (IFIC) they want such foods to enhance their immune system function. And though 42% of Americans said they’d made health-oriented changes to their diet (such as limiting sugar) in early 2020, only 15% surveyed by IFIC at year’s end planned to make a food- or beverage-related resolution for 2021.

Of course, the dairy category is rich in nutrients that support increased immune function, including vitamins A and D, zinc, and protein. Cultured dairy products—think yogurt and cottage cheese—also are loaded with probiotics that boost gut health. Manufacturers should keep this in mind as they promote existing products—and develop new ones. As Dairy Foods Editor-in-Chief Kathie Canning pointed out last fall: “Perhaps it’s time to tout that ‘little something extra.’”

Other immunity-boosting ingredients, such as elderberry (which contains antioxidants and vitamins), also have become an increasingly popular inclusion in foods and beverages in recent months, confirms Dylan Thompson, senior marketing and consumer insights manager for Symrise. “That started to come into play [early in] the pandemic, when consumers were starting to look at ways to boost their immunity without having to [exclusively] take pills or supplements,” he explains. Ajwain—a spice made from the ajwain plant’s dried fruit, which has anti-inflammatory properties—also has cropped up in drinks and savory items, he adds.

Rising to the Top 

While some uncertainty surrounds the post-pandemic era, R&D chefs and CPG manufacturers will likely continue to find that focusing on tastes and ingredients consumers have expressed interest in—ranging from healthy additives to decadent coffee mix-ins, eye-catching ice cream, and trending beverages and sweets—can help them develop new and repositioned products that will spark additional sales growth for the dairy category.

“Half of consumers stick to familiar flavors in the dairy aisle,” but the other half presents a prime opportunity for manufacturers, Hangartner says. “Borrowing emerging flavors that have grown in adjacent categories and pairing them with foundational flavors will excite consumers while still remaining approachable,” she explains. “Fruits, florals and spices—including lavender, blood orange, cardamom, yuzu, elderflower and lychee—have been trending across food and drink categories and [would certainly] refresh existing primary flavors in the dairy space.”

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